State Police denied request for public records, stating basic policies are exempt from Open Public Records Act
NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) has filed a lawsuit against the New Jersey State Police for unlawfully denying a request for public records detailing its promotion policies. This is the second time this summer that the ACLU-NJ has legally challenged the State for lack of transparency regarding public records. The ACLU-NJ filed the lawsuit on behalf of Richard Rivera, who requested the documents on behalf of the Civil Rights Protection Project of the Latino Leadership Alliance.
“The State Police is operating in virtual secrecy with no accountability to the public it serves,” said Rivera. “The public has an interest and a right to know what types of policies determine why some officers get promoted, including whether those policies favor one racial or ethnic group over another.”
On July 25, Rivera filed a request under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) for all written policies, procedures, or orders that reflect the criteria, processes and methods of promotion in the State Police.
The state rejected his request on Aug. 2, stating it was too broad and that newly adopted regulations allow the state to withhold broad categories of public documents – even general policies – from the public.
“This case is a prime example of how the Attorney General’s recently adopted regulations violate OPRA, by exempting more information from public view than the law allows,” said attorney Janie Byalik of Pashman Stein, P.C., which represents Rivera as a cooperating firm for the ACLU-NJ. “The State failed to provide any reason why it is in the public’s interest to keep this document confidential.”
Open government advocates, such as the ACLU-NJ, testified against the regulations for compromising transparency prior to the regulations’ passage in December 2011, arguing that many of the documents the State considers exempt are innocuous. The state Attorney General assured the ACLU-NJ that the regulations were not intended to make general policies and procedures – such as the ones Rivera requested – confidential.
“We raised these red flags with the state Attorney General, who assured us that the regulations would not be used to keep innocuous records, such as general personnel policies, from the public view,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “Instead, the State did exactly what we feared in its response to Rivera’s request for records.”
In July, the ACLU-NJ challenged the regulations directly in the state appellate division, asking it to invalidate several provisions of the regulations that allow the State to exempt documents such as: standard operating procedure and training manuals, employment policies, duty assignments and overtime. Byalik and Michael Stein of Pashman Stein, a law firm based in Hackensack, NJ, represent the ACLU-NJ in that case as well.
The case is captioned Richard Rivera v. Ismael E. Vargas and the New Jersey State Police.
Listen to audio comments from attorney Janie Byalik of the law firm Pashman Stein, P.C. about this case.